Anyone who reads/listens to my thoughts on exercise may be surprised by this post, and you’re right to be. So let me set the record straight to begin with:
Performing abs exercises in the hope of getting a sixpack when you have a layer of stomach fat is a waste of time.
What do I mean by this? Well, if your aim is a strong core to protect you lower back or avoid injury, then performing abs and core exercises is definitely the way forward. However, if you are wanting a flat midriff or to show off your abs for summer, then it doesn’t matter how many of each exercise below you do, nothing will happen if you don’t sort out your overall exercise regime and nutrition.
If you are holding some excess bodyfat, no matter how many abs exercises you do, you won’t see the changes you want.
Nutrition is Key
Without a solid nutritional plan, as laid out in my nutrition ebook Successful Eating, you will not lower your bodyfat enough to see your abs. Nutrition is at least 50% of the battle, so please take this into consideration before incorporating the exercises below.
Compounds are key
Compound exercises are exercises that use more than one muscle group. Examples are squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups etc. Isolation exercises are exercises that only work one muscle – in isolation – examples are biceps curls, leg extensions etc.
Compound exercises are far better for removing bodyfat. You work more muscles so burn more energy (Calories). You also affect more muscles for them to change and adapt and thus create more metabolic tissue (in the form of muscle) to make keeping a lower bodyfat more likely long term.
You must ensure your training programme incorporates large compound movements in the main. Yes, abs and isolation exercises can be incorporated too, but compounds should make up the majority of your programme. If you are struggling with finding a good programme, have a look at the ones on my site here.
The best exercise is…
As I said in my The best exercises for chest post, I love Jim Stoppani’s answer to people’s question:
“what’s the best exercise for X“.
His answer, is:
“the best exercise for X, is the one you aren’t doing“.
What he means by this is that our body’s are bound by SAIDs: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. What this means is that when you ask your body to do something and you train at that, it adapts to that and it then become’s easier. To get it to need to adapt again, you must change the exercise.
To relate this to Jim’s answer, different people use different exercises, so the answer to “what’s the best exercise for X“, is different for each person as it depends what you are doing right now. With that in mind, look at the list below and utilise the ones you don’t often do!
1. Weighted plank
The plank has had a great reputation as a core/abs exercise for years. Not only can it be done anywhere it doesn’t involve flexing at the hips which often recruits the wrong muscles. It’s also a isometric hold style exercise, which people often ignore when training.
AS good as the plank is, I think most people take it easy. They plank for 30-60seconds, when in reality, if they had to, they could probably do 2mins plus. They aren’t working to failure or to true intensity and that means they aren’t truly forcing their body’s (abs) to adapt. That’s why I prefer the weighted plank. It’s the same exercise, but a weight is placed across the lower back/upper glutes while doing it. I use a 20kg disc weight, but a powerbag, kettlebell, weighted vest or heavy kit bag is just as good.
Ensure you keep good plank form, keeping the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles in line throughout. Utilise protocols like Tabata or 30sec on 30sec off to really push yourself and your core with this awesome exercise.
Regression: lighter weight or no weight
Progressions: a heavier weight
2. Hanging knee raise holds
How many people do you see doing hanging leg or hanging knee raises at the end of a session? Equally, how many of those do you see using momentum to swing themselves up and down? The problem with momentum is that the muscles aren’t doing all the work. If you do leg/knee raises properly, there should be minimal movement from the rest of the body and the legs should be moved slowly and precisely.
I’ve found that taking a leaf out of the plank’s book is a good way to stop people relying on momentum… we make the knee raise an isometric exercise! Instead of a raise, it’s a hold. To do this, you hold onto a bar over head, exhale and pull the belly button into the body. Raise the knees to the chest (or at least 90 degrees) and hold. And hold. And hold!!
Like the plank, try to utilise protocols like Tabata or 15 on, 15 off. I guarantee these knee raise holds will work your abs more than your momentum raises.
Regression: perform slow hanging knee raises
Progression: try adding ankle weights
3. Hollow holds
A gymnast’s favourite and one paper the simplest of the bunch. However, performed correctly and this is a cheeky little abs exercise. All you have to do, is lie on your back, exhale and push the lower back into the floor. At the same time raise the hands out away from the body above the head and lift the legs straight out . You now resemble a sort of hollow, flat U. Hold this position for set periods of time.
Like planks, I advise protocols like Tabata or 15 on 15 off. If you find the exercise too easy, try lowering the legs but make sure you keep the lower back pushed into the mat. Get this right and it’s a superb exercise to superset with the weighted plank.
Regressions: separate the legs and arms so as not lifting the whole lot at once
Progression: add a weight to the hands and/or ankle weights to the ankles
Rollouts (done properly) are probably my personal favourite abs exercise. The full extension of the core and then the draw back fully exercise the entire rectus abdominus and give you DOMS to be proud of.
The biggest mistake with the exercise is that people break the hips. From start to finish you need to keep the knees, hips and shoulders in line (like the planks) which keeps tension throughout the core throughout the exercise. Bending at the hips and leading back with the backside breaks the tension and makes the exercise easier but also less effective.
Performed correctly, rollouts are one of the best all round core exercise there are. It also works the arms, chest and shoulders so you get more for your money!
Regression: rollout with a wall in front of you to control the end point
Progression: try standing rollouts
5. Body saws
Another favourite of mine for similar reasons to above: it extends the rectus abdominus and really works them to produce some pretty hefty DOMS. The body saw is a great exercise as it can be performed on the TRX, roller or from the plank position with slightly extended arms. I would always recommend the TRX or roller where possible as it allows for a better extension which leads to a better exercise.
Personally, I love tagging abs exercises one after the other, so try a set of rollouts, into a set of body saws into a set of weighted planks. You won’t thank me, but they don’t half work!
Repression: move only small increments
Progression: try to extend to completely straight arms
If you have a comfort blanket of bodyfat covering your abs, no amount of sit-ups or abs exercise will give you that elusive six pack. You must concentrate on your nutrition and a training programme utilising whole body compound movements with some structured CV training, both HIIT and LISS if possible.
Once you have got that sorted, and are on the way to lowering your bodyfat, then you can make a start at including this exercises into your programme. Try doing so after a run or some CV like the Instagram post below shows.
Abs and core. – After another steady 2miler and the obligatory pulse check to get some feedback on recovery, another 3 abs/core exercise for 3sets each to failure. • TRX bodysaw • TRX rollout • TRX alternate knee to chest. – With all three exercises, don’t rush, keep the reps slow and steady. Draw the stomach in to keep the abs pulled in and pelvis tucked under. This is especially important for the bodysaw and rollout as the exercises take you to full extension. For the alternate knee to chest, keep the shoulders over the hands, try not to allow the shoulders to move forward ahead of the hands. – Save this session and give it a a go!